What do you do when you realize that you and another professor at a different university are both teaching Thomas Becket in the same week for study abroad courses? Why, you wheedle that professor into writing a guest post, of course! Actually, it didn’t take much arm-twisting. Cameron very graciously – and very quickly – agreed to guest for us in my ongoing English Studies Abroad series.
Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. She specializes in medieval and early modern drama, and she has articles published or forthcoming in Neophilologus, Pedagogy, and Early Theatre.
To begin, I’d like to thank Kisha for inviting me to guest post here. She has been a fountain of creative and engaging pedagogy for me, so it’s an honor to contribute to one of her projects.
My study abroad course is following similar lines as Kisha’s, though we are traveling in May for 2 weeks and thus taking the whole Spring semester to prepare. I am also co-leading the trip with our Victorianist, so we’ve organized the course historically, and I’m primarily responsible for materials pre-1700. So far, we have covered Beowulf in connection with Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire gold hoard, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian myth, and the York Corpus Christi plays and the city of York. This past week, I wanted to cover two major figures in English history—Thomas Becket and Thomas More—as transitions between the medieval and early modern periods, before we usher in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (which we will see in May at the Globe), alongside Stratford, the Globe, and early modern London next week. (For fun, I also assigned the rather historically-accurate “Shakespeare Code” episode of Doctor Who).
As the truncated syllabus above demonstrates, my choices in assigned reading and discussion topics thus far have been conventional. Our readings and discussion for this past week, though, break from the norm. For one, I’m not actually taking our students to Canterbury this May. Given our limited time frame, we had to choose between Cambridge and Canterbury, and the Cantabrigians had it. Therefore, for this past week, I was less concerned about introducing my students to Canterbury Cathedral specifically and more concerned about how the narratives of Becket, and later More, could contribute to our trip overall.
And two, instead of choosing primary texts, I picked popular, artistic depictions of Becket and More. Besides Simon Schama’s A History of Britain series that students watch each week, I assigned them to read T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (because one cannot get enough Eliot!) and watch Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for all Seasons (because one cannot get enough Orson Welles!). These two texts served as backdrops for my lecture “Two Undoubting Thomases” and the discussion that followed.
Although we had already surveyed the city of York, and inevitably its minster, we had not spent much time reviewing the ecclesiastical structures and architecture of medieval and early modern England. I felt that Becket and More would make excellent case studies for these issues. So, I began Wednesday’s class by playing the Te Deum (which is referenced in Murder in the Cathedral) in order to expose students to some medieval liturgy as well as offer a taste of the kind of liturgical experiences we will encounter during our trip, such as attending evensong at St. Paul’s. I also used this opportunity to discuss the design of English cathedrals—transepts, quire screens, nave, chapels, etc.—to prepare them for the numerous cathedrals, other than Canterbury’s, that we’d visit on our trip. I also highlighted, for purposes of practicality, that cathedrals can be their compasses, (almost) always quivering east.
Then we explored the tale of two undoubting Thomases, facing off against two powerful Henrys. The similarities between these two—even the players’ names are the same!—gave force to Eliot’s telling lines: “We do not know very much of the future / Except that from generation to generation / The same things happen again and again.” The histories of Becket and More reify the power struggle between the political and ecclesiastical systems within England and interrogate issues of allegiance and supremacy. The almost-400-year gap between them reveals how pervasive—and unchanging—those struggles and issues were within medieval and early modern England. Some students wryly noted the irony in the oft-repeated line from A Man for all Seasons, “This isn’t Spain. This is England.” Unfortunately, what it meant to be England wasn’t that far from what it meant to be her Continental counterparts. Thus, the stories of Becket and More showed students the nefarious shadows within the radiant stained glass of those lofty cathedrals. We concluded by reflecting how More’s famous last words apply equally to both undoubting Thomases: “The King’s good servant, but God’s First.”